Chief executives were already expressing concern about the impact of the recession when I interviewed 110 of them in 2008. By the end of 2009, when I went back to interview 20 of them again, those involved in public sector contracting were talking about the "April 2011 abyss" and planning for survival rather than growth.
Commissioning and personalisation were still big issues, but no longer had quite the same prominence. Demonstrating outcomes and an increasingly sophisticated approach to influencing policy and raising profile were being given greater priority in the build-up to the general election. What follows are their 10 big issues.
The April 2011 abyss
All the larger charities have experienced significant growth in income from contracts. Some smaller ones, such as counselling charity Relate, have also benefited from the Government's recession action plan, and others, such as the Rainbow Trust, have started winning contracts for the first time.
But all this could come to an abrupt end in April 2011, when the current round of public spending comes to an end. In the words of Simon Knighton of the Expert Patient Programme Community Interest Company, "2011/12 is the crunch year for contracts". Kevin Williams of Kids said all but one of its £7m worth of contracts were due to end in April 2011, and Paul Jenkins of Rethink was worried that "when the moment comes, the Government will panic, rather than having a well thought-through strategy".
Planning for survival
In 2008, most chief executives were planning for growth; now, most are planning for survival. They are trying to grow voluntary income and ensure their contracted services are cost-efficient. Smaller charities such as Arthritis Care, Independent Age and Carers UK are already experiencing financial difficulties because of reductions in the value of legacies and investment income, and the loss of grants.
They are having to restructure, change services or rely more on volunteers. Even the largest charity interviewed, Barnardo's, has just launched a £3m appeal because of a drop in voluntary income.
A new government
Martin Narey of Barnardo's and Anne Longfield of 4Children both felt the Government was suffering from a loss of momentum, but they and others foresee a bigger role for the third sector, whoever wins the election. Narey said there was "not much to fear from a Conservative government".
Not surprisingly, everyone has been busy developing relationships with shadow ministers. There were many shared policy concerns, particularly around the wellbeing agenda, self-management and personalisation. Jackie Ballard of the RNID was concerned about the apparent "anti-big charity" line being taken by Iain Duncan Smith and others.
The chief executives emphasised the importance of being able to demonstrate outcomes and measure the savings that could be achieved through early interventions. Jon Barrick of the Stroke Association is commissioning health economics research to help demonstrate the benefits of the charity's services. The aim is to have the results published in time to fight against any proposed cuts.
Charities are getting increasingly adept at influencing policy. Phil Butcher of the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign has been running a project to influence the provision of NHS services for people with muscular dystrophy. This has involved doing audits of services in different regions, analysing gaps and developing plans. As a result, one region now has 15 new staff costing £1.5m per annum, and others are following suit.
The MDC has been able to demonstrate savings to the NHS by highlighting a reduction in unplanned hospital admissions. The Stroke Association and the National Autistic Society have also been closely involved in developing strategies for their conditions with government.
A year ago, commissioning attracted some strong comments. It was described variously as "appalling", "dreadful" and "a complete disaster". Martin Narey of Barnardo's, who was one of the most forthright critics in 2008, said there had been some improvement, but was still critical of the timescales on contracts. Others, such as Imelda Redmond of Carers UK, thought commissioning was still "truly dreadful".
The RNID decided to withdraw from a Department for Work and Pensions contract because there was no recognition of the higher cost of working with its client group. One area of growing concern was the complexity of the tendering process. As Kevin Williams of Kids said: "The staff sometimes feel worn out before they have even started to deliver the service." Williams and Anne Roberts of Crossroads Care have been involved in developing guides for commissioners.
In 2008, some people spoke as if commissioning would soon be superseded by individual budgets. But the new arrangements are still at the formative stage. Some organisations, such as United Response and Rethink, are changing their financial and marketing systems or developing the delivery of existing services to allow for a more person-centred approach.
Others, including Mind, have been developing a network of personalisation champions to work with service users. But there remains a lot of uncertainty about how the financial climate will affect services and concern about how they will be maintained without contracts.
Coalitions, mergers and partnerships
Incentives for partnership working appear to be growing. Sometimes partnerships begin with a campaign, such as the Kids in the Middle coalition, chaired by Claire Tyler of Relate, which campaigns to raise awareness of the impact of family breakdown on children.
Mergers are also becoming more popular, as the reduction in the number of local branches of Crossroads Care from 130 to 98 in the space of a year testifies. Larger charities expect to take over struggling smaller charities as the financial climate worsens. Partnerships for tendering are also increasing, and not just within the sector: Barnardo's, 4Children and Turning Point have all joined forces with the private services company Serco on different contracts.
The new localism
The era of top-down targets appears to be coming to an end, with a greater focus on local variation and involving local people. For national charities, this makes it harder to influence and monitor policy objectives and to secure new national initiatives. It is also becoming more important to mobilise local supporters, particularly when cuts are on the cards.
National networks such as Mind can work through their local groups; others, including the National Autistic Society, are planning to build up their local membership. Speech and language charity I Can is actively investing in new ways of mobilising parents locally.
In the public eye
James Partridge of Changing Faces spent a week reading the news on Channel Five, Lord Victor Adebowale of Turning Point has been on BBC Radio 4's Any Questions? and Martin Narey of Barnardo's has also been on Radio 4. Neil Betteridge of Arthritis Care, who has arthritis himself, is the Department of Health's patient and public adviser on elective care for England.
Achieving this kind of profile doesn't happen overnight, but charities are in the public eye more than ever, which is a good omen for tackling the challenges ahead.
THE STORY OF THE SURVEY
In 2008, Richard Gutch interviewed 110 third sector chief executives about their most important challenges and opportunities. A year later, in autumn 2009, he contacted 20 of them again to see what had changed. The organisations cover children, disabled people, health and social care, and have turnovers ranging from £1m to £220m. Five have networks of local branches or groups. Although the interviewees are not representative of the sector as a whole, their opinions provide a snapshot of the outlooks of a range of chief executives.
Richard Gutch is an associate at third sector recruitment agency Prospectus